Cheers rose around the snooker table as Lord Peregrine gained another point on Lord Devin.
“Have you found an heiress yet?” Harry’s father slurred.
“I’m hunting,” Harry replied evenly.
This was how every conversation between them had started, ever since the day Harry had idly perused his father’s charts of accounts and discovered their money streamed in the wrong direction. He’d made a panicked visit to the marquess’s man of business, who had confirmed Harry’s worst fears. All Harry was set to inherit were three entailed properties and two generations of debt.
Unless Harry married a proper fortune, and soon.
“Hunt faster,” said his father. “Stalk the right prey.”
This not-particularly-veiled comment referred to Harry’s reputation as a rake. He’d earned the title before he’d understood the state of his family’s affairs, and since then had been careful to limit his seductions to widows and courtesans—not anyone he might be forced to marry.
When he went to the altar, it would be to wed the bride with the biggest dowry in all the ton. Although there had been several interested heiresses in prior years, Harry’s heart hadn’t been in it.
His heart no longer mattered. There were bills to pay.
“What about your sister?” asked the marquess. “You get Christina betrothed yet?”
Harry shook his head. “Tina has politely requested that her ‘ne’er-do-well rapscallion brother’ stay out of her business.”
A simple enough wish to grant. It was easy to do nothing, and right in line with Harry’s rakehell reputation. When no one expected great things from you, it was impossible to disappoint them.
While his bashful sister suffered a dearth of suitors, Harry fielded the opposite problem. The entailed estates were a known asset, the nonexistent familial wealth assumed to be in good standing, and Harry’s upcoming aristocratic title ripe for the bride’s taking.
Every year, a new crop of debutantes threw themselves at his feet, hoping to be the new Lady Eagleton and the future Marchioness of Albridge. Rather than let them down individually, he had let it be known that his heart was cold as the Thames in winter. And that only an heiress would do.
His nicknameThe Huntsmanwas as much due to his unapologetic fortune-hunting as to his rakish conquests. The gossips couldn’t go a day without mentioning one or the other. Rather than scare women off, the unvarnished truth served to attract those who wished to be wed—or seduced.
All Harry had to do was let the cream rise to the top and then take what he needed.
Who cared if the women in his orbit were after his body or his title, and not the man himself? He didn’t need to be wanted. Love was for poets and fools. A crass exchange of assets was better for everyone. If he and his future marchioness could not stand each other, they wouldn’t have to. As long as she had his title and he had her dowry, they could live separate lives. If that was not the dream he’d once had as a young lad, well, every man had to grow up sometime.
“Pardon me, my lords.” An apologetic footman appeared beside the table bearing a small tray. “Message for Lord Eagleton.”
“Better be a betrothal contract from a bride,” the marquess mumbled.
Harry smiled at the footman—who likely had hoped to be tipped a coin for his efforts—and accepted the missive.
He recognized the handwriting at once.
Harry had performed occasional odd tasks for the Countess of Quinseley. For years, she made a clandestine deposit into Harry’s banking account in exchange for him paying special attention to her at some ball or other, in an attempt to make her husband jealous.
There had been no such summons since the death of the earl a year earlier. Harry could not imagine what she wanted from him now, but if she was willing to pay for his time… he could not afford to rebuff the countess or the opportunity.
He rose to his feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Father.”
The marquess lifted his glass, the port sloshing at the sudden motion. “I’ll be here.”
Yes, Harry thought grimly. That was whyhehad to go and dance to Lady Quinseley’s tune.
Luckily, there was no need to hail a hackney carriage. The walk from St. James’s to Mayfair was less than a mile, and the weather was gorgeous and brisk.
Lady Quinseley’s butler answered the door at once, and ushered Harry to the countess’s private parlor.
She sat in a tall wingback chair, regal as a throne, as though presiding over her kingdom.
Harry swept a bow. “Looking beautiful, as always, Lady Quinseley.”